For Some, a New Be­gin­ning at Easter

Large Class of Con­verts at Mother Se­ton Sig­nals Hope for Once-Trou­bled Church

The Washington Post Sunday - - Front Page - By Jac­que­line L. Salmon

At Mother Se­ton Parish’s Easter Vigil ser­vice last night, the front pews were filled with pil­grims who grew up far from the Catholic faith.

There was a sparkling- eyed Mus­lim teenager, a Bud­dhist so­cial worker raised in Sri Lankha and a Protes­tant im­mi­grant from Ja­maica. But by the end of the cer­e­mony, those three, along with a dozen oth­ers, had been ini­ti­ated into Catholi­cism in a rite that started in dark­ness and ended in hugs and tears of joy.

Mother Se­ton, made up mostly of young fam­i­lies, is a mi­cro­cosm of the in­creas­ingly di­verse face of Catholi­cism in the re­gion. New­com­ers from a variety of eth­nic­i­ties, races and faiths have helped build the Ger­man­town church into one of the Arch­dio­cese of Wash­ing­ton’s fastest- grow­ing parishes.

The con­verts were among 2,000 peo­ple in the area in­ducted last night dur­ing Easter Vigil ser­vices, in which Catholics wel­come new­com­ers to their faith as they cel­e­brate the Easter res­ur­rec­tion of their suf­fer­ing Christ. To­day in the Wash­ing­ton area, where there are al­most 1 mil­lion Catholics, Masses are cel­e­brated in more than 20 lan­guages.

At Mother Se­ton Parish, which has en­dured its own an­guish — in­clud­ing a homi­cide and a sex­ual abuse al­le­ga­tion — and res­ur­rec­tion in re­cent years, the event was a cul­mi­na­tion of seven months of study by the con­verts in a base­ment class­room. Led by long­time parish­ioner Michael Schwartz, class mem­bers, ages 16 to 62, im­mersed them­selves in Catholic be­liefs and prac­tices. Each also chose a Catholic spon­sor and a pa­tron saint.

Along the way, they pep­pered Schwartz with ques­tions on the nuts and bolts of the faith: Do Catholics gen­u­flect on the right or left knee? ( The right.) Is plas­tic surgery al­lowed? ( It is.) Does the Church re­ally de­mand chastity out­side mar­riage? ( It does.)

“ It’s been a long year, but it’s been an en­joy­able one,” said Ni­cholas Dun­can, 39, who spent his child­hood in Ja­maica as a Protes­tant. He de­cided to join his wife and son in the Catholic faith af­ter his wife was laid off and the fam­ily was strug­gling fi­nan­cially. He prayed for help to get through the cri­sis.

“ God gave me the strength each time I needed it,” he said. “ It made me start to think that it’s time for me to do some­thing, es­pe­cially since God was there in my life.”

Hard times also brought Ya­muna Per­era, 28, who grew up Bud­dhist, to the Catholic faith.

As a teenager strug­gling with fam­ily ten­sions in New York, she stum­bled across a Catholic chapel and be­gan drop­ping in to ask God for help.

Her con­ver­sion to Catholi­cism, she said, is her way of thank­ing God for the com­fort she re­ceived. She is now mar­ried to a Catholic and ex­pect­ing her first child in Septem­ber.

Donya Botkan, 16, a ju­nior at Da­m­as­cus High School, had to over­come the con­cerns of her Mus­lim par­ents, who as­sumed she was just go­ing through a phase. She had been at­tend­ing Mass at Mother Se­ton as a purely so­cial event with her Catholic friends, but Je­sus’s mes­sage of com­pas­sion and for­give­ness, she said, wove its way into her heart.

“ You don’t hear that as much in other faiths com­pared to Chris­tian­ity,” she said.

For the parish it­self, which has been through trou­bling times, the large class of ini­ti­ates is an­other hope­ful mes­sage of this Easter sea­son.

In 2000, its big and boom­ing parish priest, Mon­signor Thomas Wells, was fa­tally stabbed in his bed­room at the church rec­tory by a home­less man dur­ing a rob­bery. His blood­ied body was dis­cov­ered by parish­ioners.

Three years later, a for­mer al­tar boy ac­cused an ex- as­so­ci­ate pas­tor at Mother Se­ton of sex­u­ally abus­ing him. The priest, the Rev. Aaron Cote, who had moved to a Rhode Is­land parish, was re­moved from the min­istry.

Since then, the rec­tory where Wells was slain has been torn down and a $ 4.3 mil­lion church with a 750- seat sanc­tu­ary con­structed on the site. Av­er­age Sun­day at­ten­dance has swelled by 30 per­cent, to al­most 3,000 wor­shipers, as the Rev. Ron Potts, 43, the briskly cheer­ful parish priest who re­placed Wells, has worked hard to heal the con­gre­ga­tion.

“ Be not afraid,” he coun­sels fre­quently from the pul­pit in his bel­l­like tenor. By em­brac­ing the suf­fer­ing of Je­sus, he tells them, they will be strength­ened by his grace and good­ness.

In the sanc­tu­ary on a re­cent Tues­day, the ner­vous ini­ti­ates re­hearsed for last night’s cer­e­mony, which in­cluded bap­tism for those who had never been bap­tized, then first Com­mu­nion for all.

“ Have we all prac­ticed re­ceiv­ing Com­mu­nion?” Potts asked as they sat down in the pews, their Catholic spon­sors seated be­hind them. The con­verts shook their heads.

Potts demon­strated, his cupped hands ac­cept­ing an imag­i­nary Host and then del­i­cately plac­ing it on his tongue with his right hand.

Botkan’s spon­sor, Stacey Hor­man, edged for­ward into her seat and mur­mured ad­vice in her ear.

“ Chew it as fast as you can,” she coun­seled. Oth­er­wise, “ it’ll stick to the roof of your mouth.”

But prac­ti­cal con­cerns were swept aside last night when the cer­e­mony got un­der­way with the light­ing of a fire af­ter sun­set in the chilly air out­side the church en­trance.

The con­verts, their spon­sors and hun­dreds of church mem­bers then pro­ceeded solemnly into the black­ened sanc­tu­ary, rep­re­sent­ing the dark­ness of the world with­out God.

Once the wor­shipers were inside, can­dles were lit, the lights sprang on and the choir burst into song as sor­row turned to joy at the res­ur­rec­tion of the Lord.

As the cer­e­mony pro­gressed, the bap­tismal can­di­dates were led to the mar­ble bap­tismal font, turn­ing their heads to the al­tar.

Potts poured wa­ter over their fore­heads and de­clared, “ I bap­tize you in the name of the Fa­ther, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”


Charles Jones, cen­ter, and Crys­tal Har­ring­ton, who are among more than a dozen Mother Se­ton parish­ioners who were for­mally wel­comed into the Catholic faith last night, sing dur­ing a Holy Thurs­day ser­vice.


Catholic con­verts and parish­ioners par­tic­i­pate in the Easter Vigil ser­vice at Mother Se­ton Parish in Ger­man­town. The ser­vice started with a fire out­side the church at sun­set, fol­lowed by the light­ing of can­dles inside.

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